Sunday, 23 January 2011

Limit-setting: a fundamental step in building a relationship with a child

No kitchen video footage tonight – but I am hoping to do some tomorrow: we’ll be back in the kitchen undertaking the lovely job of cleaning the cooker.
In the meantime, I’ve been reflecting on limit-setting as it seems to have been cropping up for me everywhere over the past week or so….…at home, at school, amongst friends with typical children and on facebook.
On an autism support group on facebook a couple of days ago, I noticed a comment with a very long thread of responses.  When I looked at the problem under discussion, I saw that it related to what many parents call ‘challenging behaviour’.  One Mum said “My son who's 10, when in meltdown mode gets very aggressive.  Does anyone have any advice for the hitting, pinching, and biting behaviors?”
Several other Mums had offered suggestions and then even more had expressed frustration at their own difficulties with the ‘challenging behaviour’ of their children. 
In my experience, negative behaviours are usually a defensive response to a situation or a demand that a child can’t cope with (including a sensory challenge) or a negative response to being thwarted during a power struggle.  Both of these situations trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, an instinctive response that comes from the part of the brain called the limbic system.  The difference between typical people and people with autism is that typical people can very quickly deploy the flexible thinking competencies needed to over-ride the instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response.  Typical people quickly use the pre-frontal cortex - the seat of adaptive thinking that includes appraising, reflecting, generating options for a solution to a problem, evaluating.  The pre-frontal cortex over-rides the limbic system, the ‘fight or flight’ response is dampened down and the individual is able to respond more adaptively to the challenge or frustration.
These planning, reflecting and appraising, or dynamic/flexible thinking competencies are also sometimes referred to as ‘executive functioning’ skills.  They are all impaired in autism because the child has been unable to take part in the ‘guided participation relationship’ (GPR – see previous blogs).  It is participation in the GPR that provides the framework for the development of these special thinking competencies.
If you remember the recent blog on episodic memory, you’ll remember that children with autism also fail to develop episodic memory – the special kind of memory that leads to resilience.
So, when a child with autism is presented with a new challenge that they find overwhelming, they have neither the flexible thinking competencies needed to work out how to manage the problem effectively, nor the episodic memory that allows them to ‘bounce back’ from a setback.
If you think about it that way, it’s no wonder children with autism can sometimes behave in a challenging way.  Whilst the behaviour may challenge us, it can be a huge sign of distress and possibly could be more aptly named ‘distressed behaviour’.
I didn’t engage in the facebook debate about the aggressive behaviour but I did wonder what had triggered the meltdown in the first place.  Possibilities that occurred to me were a) a challenge that was too big b) sensory overload or c) Mum had tried to set a limit but the limit-setting had not been effective and emotions had escalated.
The latter of the 3 possibilities reminds me of the difficulties we used to have with parenting Philip before we got limit-setting firmly in place.  Limit-setting was working fine with Louis, our typically developing child, but we just couldn't crack it with Philip.  What I didn't know at the time but have since learned was that his behaviour wasn't a result of him being wilfully oppositional - it was a result of him not having the thinking competencies needed to respond adaptively to everyday challenges and frustrations.

Our RDI programme didn’t really get off the starting blocks until our RDI Consultant introduced us to ‘1, 2, 3 Magic’, which is a method that can be used with kids of all abilities with a chronological age of between 2 - 14 years as long as they have a cognitive age of 2 years or over.
It separates problem behaviours into ‘stop' and 'start’ behaviours and offers different strategies for each.  I like it because it’s easy to follow and puts an immediate stop to whining, disrespect, arguing, teasing, sulking and badgering.
Also, for me, it helps me avoid turning into ‘Psycho-Mother’ - the horrible creature that (to my chagrin) I have been known to mutate into in the past….when having a temper tantrum of my own over not being able to 'control' my child L
Since we’ve been using the ‘counting’ procedure for ‘stop’ behaviours, it’s helped all of us (including us parents) regulate our emotions, helped all of us to improve our self-control and drastically reduced our family stress levels.
It’s also helped to develop consideration and co-operation in both children (it is best used when applied to all the children in the family as a consistent parenting aproach). 
An evaluation of the ‘1, 2, 3 Magic’ programme was undertaken by the UK’s Social Care Institute for Excellence in 2009, with results published in 2010.  The study concludes ‘that ‘123 Magic’ is an effective parenting programme……scores increased at the end of the programme for all domains of parenting, particularly child behaviour, boundary setting and control. The improvement in scores relating to emotion and affection were significant, although somewhat less than the change in scores in other domains of parenting.’
You can buy the ‘1, 2, 3 Magic’ book on Amazon and you don’t have to take part in any complicated or lengthy training course in order to be able to implement it – just read the book and off you go.  There is also an accompanying book for teachers, and we are currently working our way thorough it as a team at school, during our staff training sessions.
I also like Ross Greene’s ‘Collaborative Problem Solving’ approach, which he’s written about in his book ‘The Explosive Child’ and again in ‘Lost at School’.  It’s a more sophisticated approach for older children that allows them to take responsibility both for their behaviour, and for resolving conflict, as well as helping adults to figure out what's going wrong for the challenging child.
Ross Greene’s underlying philosophy is ‘Kids do well if they can’ – so if they’re not doing well, it means something is getting in their way. 

Both books look at the reasons why children present with challenging behaviour, explaining that challenging behaviour is usually a result of a) ‘lagging thinking skills’ in the child (I referred to them as executive functioning or dynamic thinking competencies – basically the same thing) and b) ‘unsolved problems’ or situations that trigger the behaviours.
Ross Greene’s solution to challenging behaviour is to use what he calls ‘proactive Plan B’, using the 3 simple steps of ‘empathy’ (adult empathises with child), ‘define the problem’ (adult states what s/he thinks has caused the conflict) and ‘invitation’ (to help solve the problem – so that it is a collaborative solution).
For a full explanation, you can watch the man himself in action on his web site, where he takes you through different versions of implementing Plan B, including what to do when it goes awry.
We were able to use collaborative problem-solving with the children once we had got firm limit-setting foundations in place with 1, 2, 3 Magic.  We still have our tricky moments, but by and large, our family dynamics are now much calmer and more respectful.


  1. I love how you give easily implemented suggestions we can use today, we learn to set limits with all of our children. 123Magic and Ross Green are great resources.
    I think the message is: we can guide all children to follow rules, to respect limits, and to cooperate. We as adults need to learn and use the tools that are effective with each child. The challenge is to find the tools that are effective. The two tools you mention are a great start.
    I am loving your blog.

  2. Hi Deirdre

    It's lovely to get such supportive comments - it's a little scary putting yourself and your family out there on a blog, so positive feedback is most welcome!